How to Build Your Parent Orientation Program

Summer is officially here, and on college and university campuses across the country that means one thing - orientation season. While the focus of any good orientation program is primarily on students - tending to their acclimation and preparing them for the huge transition they’re about to go through - it’s important to not forget about the parents and family members who will be supporting them through that transition. Remember...they are about to go through a huge change as well!

Best practice is to include parents and family members in orientation, with at least some programming designed specifically for them. This allows the students to begin experiencing a little autonomy and also gives you an opportunity to speak directly to family members’ unique needs.

But when was the last time you took a hard look at the topics and schedule for your parent and family orientation? It might be time to make sure you’re doing things strategically.

Richard Mullendore, co-author of The Parent and Family Guide to Navigating the First College Year, has some great advice on rethinking your plan for parent orientation. With a nod to the increasing anxiety and high levels of previous educational involvement that family members come to your campuses with, Dr. Mullendore suggests viewing orientation as an opportunity to proactively establish boundaries and coach parents through their transition.

When considering a schedule, Mullendore recommends basing the order of information sessions on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Starting with the physiological needs first, he insists that the way to prepare parents for the difficult task of letting go is to make sure they have trust in the institution’s ability to manage the shelter and feeding of their child, as well as talk about how it will all get paid for right off the bat.

The next step is to address issues of safety, including campus crime and mental and physical well-being. Only after those two critical areas are addressed are parents ready to hear messages about belonging (advising and career counseling) and esteem (involvement and recreation).

Even if getting representatives from housing, dining, and the bursar’s office to a morning presentation takes some negotiation on your part, it’s worth the benefit in the long-run. Alleviating anxiety about the first topics at the beginning of their orientation allows them to be open to the conversation about their future involvement with their college student - this fits into the final stage in the hierarchy of needs...self-actualization. After covering all other needs is when you should talk to parents about the appropriate ways they can stay connected and provide advice on where they should not be involved.

Another great way to ensure that parents are getting critical information about the physiological needs of their student even BEFORE they arrive at orientation is to use technology to communicate with them early. CampusESP’s targeted communication tool is a great way to manage this difficult task. With a dedicated parent portal, you can also allow the more anxious parents to sign up for even more information about housing or campus safety.